More Rioting Erupts at Jails
Nearly 500 inmates fought Wednesday in racially charged melees at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, marking a fifth day of violence in the Los Angeles County jail system and underscoring officials’ inability to stop unrest tied to street conflicts between Latino and black gangs.
The toll in recent days has been high: one dead, at least 28 hospitalized and nearly 90 injured in rioting in the nation’s largest jail system.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Feb. 10, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 10, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 104 words Type of Material: Correction
Jail riots -- An article in Thursday’s Section A about rioting at Los Angeles County jails said that sheriff’s officials had been forced to transfer 1,000 inmates from the East Facility of the Pitchess Detention Center to the center’s North Facility. The inmates were transferred to the nearby North County Correctional Facility. The article also said that the North Facility population had grown from 3,500 to 4,100 medium-high to high-security-risk inmates. That population increase occurred at the North County Correctional Facility. Also, the article said that more than 1,000 Pitchess inmates had been involved in fights through Wednesday. The actual number is about 2,800.
More than 1,000 inmates at Pitchess have taken part in the disturbances, throwing bunk beds from balconies and using their fists and legs to fight each other, officials said.
Fights during the day Wednesday injured 19 inmates. Four were sent to hospitals, one with a serious head injury.
Another fight occurred late Wednesday, resulting in superficial injuries to a few inmates, authorities said. Order was quickly restored and the facility was locked down, said Sheriff’s Deputy Oscar Butao. As a precaution, he said, all of the county’s other jails also were locked down.
The large-scale racial fighting spread Wednesday to at least one other county facility: Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, where 40 inmates battled, injuring 10 and sending four to hospitals, according to a Sheriff’s Department document. Deputies used pepper balls to break up that fight.
The unrest has festered despite lockdowns and emergency racial segregation in large part because the system’s available beds require nearly all inmates to live in dormitory-style housing, officials said. With only about 1,000 single cells available in a system that houses 21,000 people, jailers said, even in times of crisis it is impossible to separate all inmates.
The facilities nearly all predate the explosion of gang-related crime in Los Angeles County and are ill-equipped to handle increasingly violent inmates, officials said.
“Now we’re in essence a mini state prison,” said Sgt. Mark McCorkle, an aide to Sammy Jones, chief of the sheriff’s Custody Division. “It’s no longer the drunk drivers and the misdemeanors and the petty thieves. The type of inmate we house is typically a hard-core felon, and an increased number of those have a desire to make their [reputations] before going on to state prison, and that often breaks down to racial attacks.”
Though racial tensions have always been high in the county jail system, officials said, in recent years the domination of Latino gangs has shifted the jail power structure and left African Americans particularly vulnerable to attacks.
Because of demographic shifts in the county, officials said, Latinos outnumber blacks in the dormitories, which legally cannot be segregated along racial lines except in emergencies.
The inmate who was seriously injured Wednesday at Pitchess was black, officials said.
So was the prisoner beaten to death Saturday at Pitchess’ North County Correctional Facility. Wayne Tiznor, 45, was a convicted rapist in jail on a parole violation for failing to register as a sex offender. .
Investigators traced Saturday’s riot to Mexican Mafia prison gang leaders, who they say greenlighted Latino jail inmates to attack blacks. The riot was planned as retaliation for an attack on one of their associates that they said was committed by a black gang member in Los Angeles, said Chief Marc Klugman, head of the sheriff’s Correctional Services Division.
The recent organized attacks by Latinos on blacks in county jails reflect long-standing racial conflicts made worse by interracial street battles that were rare until the early 1990s.
The change in street culture was originally driven by the prisons, with Mexican Mafia prison leaders ordering Latino gang members on the outside to take over black-controlled neighborhoods and drug trade, said Wes McBride, a Sheriff’s Department gang investigator for many years and now president of the California Gang Investigators Assn.
The direct ties between street conflicts and racial tensions in the jail are difficult to combat, given the ever-changing jail population, which includes a wide range of offenders, from petty criminals to homicide suspects, awaiting trial, officials said.
Jail officials said racial allegiances in the jails have long taken precedence over street gang ties -- with a strict code among Latinos and blacks to defend their own, regardless of whether they would be rival gang members on the outside.
Still, jail officials said that when inmates are segregated along racial lines in emergency situations, their intra-racial street rivalries and gang affiliations reemerge quickly -- something that occurred among segregated inmates in recent days at North County Correctional Facility at Pitchess.
The recent riots and fights took place although jail officials had intelligence, which they took seriously, indicating that Latino-on-black racial violence was brewing at Pitchess. Officials at the complex said Saturday’s riot occurred only an hour after an emergency response team had checked the dormitories for anything out of the ordinary.
“They out-waited us,” said Capt. Ray Leyva, who runs the North Facility. Unrest continued over the next few days. More than 80 inmates rioted Monday in Leyva’s building, leaving one prisoner with minor injuries.
“I had deputies dressed in riot gear standing outside the door, and that didn’t stop them,” he said. “I could have had a deputy in front of every dorm and that wouldn’t have stopped them.”
The rolling fights that broke out Wednesday at the East Facility at Pitchess occurred in the span of about an hour in four separate dormitories that house racially mixed inmates.
Despite going to lockdown after deputies used tear gas and sting balls to stop 120 inmates from battling in the first fight, which started about 12:15 p.m., racial altercations soon broke out among hundreds of other prisoners in other parts of the building, officials said.
With so many problems in recent days, area rescue personnel said, they were not surprised to be called back again.
“It is like we are expecting it every day now,” said Doug LaCount, a Los Angeles County fire captain at a station near Pitchess.
He said that although the inmates undergoing treatment have been cooperative with rescue personnel, concerns remain about patients fighting other patients.
Until Wednesday, the East Facility, which normally houses about 2,000 medium-high- and high-security-risk inmates, had not been the site of any of the recent rioting. In fact, on Friday a water main break that left part of the facility without working toilets, showers or drinking water had forced the transfer of 1,000 inmates from there to the nearby North Facility.
The prisoners were moved although officials believed that a racial attack was being planned by Latino gang members against blacks.
Officials said they had no choice but to relocate the men. McCorkle said the transfer meant that the North Facility’s population had grown from 3,500 to about 4,100 medium-high- to high-security-risk inmates at the time of Saturday’s rioting.
But officials said that given staffing shortages and available beds, they had no choice but to move those inmates to the nearby facilities, despite concerns about violence at the complex.
This week, Sheriff Lee Baca said he will begin using Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles to hold “level eight and nine” inmates -- the most violent rankings of prisoners in the jail system -- next month.
Baca had said that until now he could not afford to house violent inmates at Twin Towers because of higher personnel costs.
The state-of-the-art building was designed to handle the most violent inmates, but has been used instead for female offenders and prisoners with mental health problems since partially opening in the late 1990s.
County Supervisor Mike Antonovich said Wednesday that he and other supervisors have warned for years that keeping women in Twin Towers while placing dangerous felons in dormitories at Pitchess would lead to increased violence in the jails.
Times staff writers Sam Quinones, Sharon Bernstein, Richard Winton and Stuart Pfeifer contributed to this report.